By Tim Talley
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Two of state school Superintendent Janet Barresi’s top administrators who were paid by a private foundation for four months after Barresi took office were not state employees and had no authority at the agency, Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office said in a legal opinion made public Friday.
The nine-page opinion, requested by Senate Democratic Leader Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, says state law does not allow an employee or officer to be directly compensated by a private entity or person and that such workers are usurpers who have no authority to carry out official duties.
“The Oklahoma Constitution and Oklahoma statutes unambiguously require that officers and employees be compensated only as allowed by law,” the opinion states. “As a result, the funds used to pay an employee must come from the state treasury.”
The opinion involves two Department of Education administrators, chief of staff Jennifer Carter and communications director Damon Gardenhire, who were paid with private funds after they went to work at the agency when the Republican school superintendent took office on Jan. 10.
Rice, who sought the opinion in February, said it supports the beliefs of Senate Democrats that the two senior administrators were not state employees and had no legal authority to perform any function at the agency.
“Illegitimate actions were being taken by people who are not state officers,” Rice said. “I don’t think it reflects well on the Department of Education.”
Rice said he does not know what consequences the department faces as a result of the opinion and what, if any, actions authorized by Carter and Gardenhire might be affected.
Diane Clay, a spokeswoman for Pruitt’s office, said Friday it is not the attorney general’s role to speculate about the impact of any of his office’s legal opinions. But a statement by Gardenhire said the ruling will have no impact on the Department of Education.
Carter and Gardenhire were initially paid by the 3R Initiative, Inc., Fund, affiliated with the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma, until their hiring could be approved by the Board of Education.
However, the board rejected their employment and that of a third Barresi appointee, finance director Jill Geiger, at a contentious meeting in late January where some board members questioned their qualifications.